This elegant torte is both delicate and decadent. Dacquoise refers to the nut-meringue that is the base of this French dessert, although the term is also used for any dessert with nut meringue layers. The name itself is derived from the feminine form of the word meaning “of Dax,” a town in southwestern France where the dessert presumably originated in the 17th century as a delicacy for the French court.
The nuts in this particular dacquoise, obviously, are hazelnuts, but that’s just the start of the flavor profile here. The delicately chewy meringue layers are sandwiched with a coffee custard, topped with swirls of chocolate ganache and caramelized hazelnuts, and surrounded by even more chopped hazelnuts to give it a beautiful finish.
Mary Berry set this technical challenge to the bakers in the Great White Tent, as it is one of her own recipes. It was therefore with not a little trepidation that I set out to replicate it.
Because hazelnuts are not as common in my part of the U.S. as, say, walnuts or pecans, the first difficulty was finding some. And when I did, they still had their skins on them, so I went about blanching them with the instructions I found here. While the skins come off easily after boiling the nuts in baking soda and water, it is tedious work, and they need to be toasted afterward to make them crunchy again.
Once that was done, I could grind the nuts and make my meringues. Meringue isn’t difficult if you follow a few simple rules:
- Make sure your bowl and beaters are clean and free of any grease or oil.
- Let your egg whites sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before whisking.
- Start whisking at medium speed before increasing the speed gradually.
- Add the sugar gradually, about 1 tablespoon at a time.
- Don’t overbeat! Once you get stiff, glossy peaks that stay in the bowl when you turn it upside down (Perform this test cautiously!), don’t whisk them any further. If the texture becomes grainy or lumpy, they’ve been overbeaten.
Using an 8-inch bowl as a pattern, I drew circles onto three pieces of parchment paper and lay them upside down on baking sheets (so the ink wouldn’t touch the meringue). Having folded the ground hazelnuts into the meringue, I piped it onto the parchment paper, filling in the circles as neatly as possible. (I find that working from the outside in works better for me than working from the center of the circle outward. I also prefer making concentric circles instead of a spiral. But you do you!)
The meringues have to bake for an hour at 300°F and then cool in the oven with the door propped open for another 45 minutes. So while I was waiting, I prepared the ganache, which needed time to thicken up in the fridge, and the coffee custard filling.
Coffee custard is like any other custard — made by pouring hot milk into whipped egg yolks and sugar while whisking continuously and then putting it back on the heat and whisking it until thickened — but it has an added ingredient called coffee essence. I had to look that one up.
Coffee essence is basically a concentrated, sweetened coffee syrup. A popular U.K. brand is Camp Chicory & Coffee Essence, which is what Mary’s recipe calls for. It was created in Scotland in the late 1800s basically as the first instant coffee. However, the only time I like chicory in my coffee is at Café du Monde in New Orleans with a couple of beignets, so I decided to skip the brand-name product and use the coffee extract I had left over from the coffee buttercream I used in my Tiny Tiramisu Cakes. If you’d like to try your own homemade coffee essence, there’s a simple recipe here.
After making the custard and letting it cool, I whipped the cream and folded it into the custard. I ran into a bit of a problem here — either I overcooked the custard or I let it chill too long. When I tried folding half of it into the cream it got lumpy, so I ended up having to whip it with the stand mixer to get the lumps out. But that meant the cream had lost most of its air, so I took the other half of the custard, whipped it until smooth, whipped another ½ cup of cream and folded them together. Then I folded the first batch into the second batch and ended up with a usable coffee-flavored pastry cream.
The last step before assembling the torte was to make the hazelnut praline clusters, which adorn the top of the dacquoise with the swirls of ganache. This involves making caramel, which has been hit or miss for me in the past. However, this time, following Mary’s instructions and using a small frying pan instead of a saucepan, it worked like a charm! As soon as the sugar melted and turned an amber color, I added 36 whole hazelnuts, stirring to coat them quickly before the caramel hardened; then I turned them out onto parchment and separated them into 12 clusters of three nuts each.
To assemble the torte, I put one dacquoise layer onto a serving platter, spread one third of the pastry cream on it, then topped it with another dacquoise layer. On top of that went another third of the filling, topped with the final layer of dacquoise. The remainder of the pastry cream went around the sides, and then I took the last of the chopped hazelnuts and pressed them around the sides. Finally, I piped 12 swirls of chocolate ganache in a circle on the top of the torte and pressed a hazelnut praline cluster into each chocolate swirl.
It was a hot, humid day, and the sides were drooping a bit by the time I finished the top, so I popped the whole thing into the fridge for an hour or so before serving. Fortunately, it held together, and the first bite was delightfully crunchy, chewy and creamy all at the same time. The sweetness of the nut meringue was balanced by the coffee flavor so neither flavor was overpowering.
Here’s a link to Mary Berry’s recipe, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers below.
Mary Berry’s Hazelnut Dacquoise
For the dacquoise:
For the ganache:
For the coffee custard filling:
- 2½ c. whole milk
- 3 large egg yolks
- 2/3 c. superfine (baker’s) sugar
- 2 T. coffee essence (see note)
- 6 T. cornstarch
- 1¼ c. heavy whipping cream
For the decoration:
- ¼ c. superfine (baker’s) sugar
- ½ t. lemon juice
- 36 whole blanched hazelnuts
- 1 c. roasted, chopped hazelnuts
- For the dacquoise, preheat the oven to 350°F. Grind the hazelnuts in a food processor on pulse until coarsely ground. Spread the nuts out in a roasting pan and bake for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown, stirring every three minutes.
- Remove pan from the oven and transfer ground nuts to a large bowl to cool. When cool, stir in ½ cup of the sugar and 3 tablespoons of cornstarch.
- Reduce oven temperature to 300°F. Position oven racks in the upper, middle and lower thirds of the oven. Line three baking sheets with parchment paper and use a plate or bowl as a template to draw an 8¼-inch diameter circle on each. Turn the paper over so the writing is on the underside. (You should still be able to see the circle through the paper.) Set aside.
- Make the meringue by pouring egg whites into the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Add the salt and whisk on medium speed for about 2 minutes, or until white and frothy. Increase the speed and add the remaining 1 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until stiff, glossy peaks form. Gently fold the ground hazelnut mixture through the meringue.
- Spoon the meringue mixture into a large piping bag fitted with a 5/8-inch plain tip and pipe the meringue into a spiral (or concentric circles), filling the circle on each parchment. Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour, rotating the top and bottom baking sheets halfway through the baking time. Keep an eye on the meringues near the end of the baking time to make sure they don’t get too dark. Turn off the oven and leave the dacquoise to cool in the oven, with the door propped open, for at least 45 minutes.
- For the chocolate ganache, place the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Pour the cream into a pan and heat to a simmer. Take off the heat and pour over the chocolate. Stir until the mixture is smooth. Cool, then place in the fridge to chill until thickened enough to pipe. Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a medium star tip. Set aside. (If the ganache is too stiff, bring to room temperature and beat with a wooden spoon until it is pipeable.)
- For the coffee custard, heat the milk in a heavy-based saucepan and bring to a boil over low heat. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized bowl, use an electric mixer to whisk the egg yolks, sugar and coffee essence together. Whisk in the cornstarch, one tablespoon at a time. Pour the hot milk over the egg yolk mixture, whisking continuously, then pour the mixture back into the pan. Bring to a boil, whisking by hand continuously; reduce the heat and simmer, whisking for 2-3 more minutes, until smooth and very thick. (You need to use a whisk during this process to prevent lumps from forming.) Remove from the heat and leave to cool for at least an hour. Cover surface of custard with plastic wrap to prevent a film from forming.
- Clean the whisk attachment of the electric mixer and use it to whip the cream until soft peaks form. Fold half of the coffee custard into the cream, adding as much as is needed to reach a spreadable consistency. Store in refrigerator until needed.
- For the decorations, start with the hazelnut praline clusters: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Melt the sugar in a small frying pan until it turns the color of amber. Do not stir until most of the sugar is melted. Once it’s all melted and golden brown, add the lemon juice and whole hazelnuts. Stir well and turn out onto the lined baking sheet. Using two teaspoons and working quickly, before the caramel sets, form 12 clusters of three hazelnuts each.
- To assemble the dacquoise, place one meringue layer on a large, flat serving platter and spread one-third of the coffee custard filling on top. Place another meringue layer on top of that and spread another third of the coffee custard filling on it. Top with the final meringue layer, and use the rest of the filling to cover the sides of the dacquoise (filling in any gaps between layers), leaving the top bare. Press the chopped hazelnuts onto the sides of the torte to cover. Pipe 12 swirls of chocolate ganache in a circle on the top of the torte (like the hour positions on a clock), and press a praline cluster into each chocolate swirl.
- Note: If you don’t have access to commercial coffee essence, you can make your own using this recipe: https://thequeenbean.blog/2017/05/23/baking-with-coffee-make-your-own-coffee-essence/.